MOVIE REVIEW: 'The Birth of a Nation'

Phil Villarreal's novel, Zeta Male, is available at Amazon.

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - "The Birth of a Nation" is a powerful film out to reshape film history. Bearing the same title as a notoriously racist 1915 D.W. Griffith film about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the new movie is the stirring saga of an 1831 slave uprising led by charismatic preacher Nat Turner.

The new film is a penetrating, unflinching look at the horrors of slavery that will forever taint American heritage. But the movie struggles to overcome demons of its own, much in part to the shady past of Nate Parker, the immensely talented lead actor, director and writer.

In 1999, when Parker attended Penn State University, he and another man were accused of raping a student and harassing her after she pressed charges. Parker was found not guilty, and the alleged victim committed suicide in 2012. Parker's past could derail the film on its path to Oscar accolades.

As "The Birth of a Nation" plays, it's captivating enough to transport you out of grim reality and into its relentlessly punishing yet inspirational tale. As Turner, Parker assumes a soft-spoken charisma that affects those around him. Whether he is struggling in the cotton fields, courting his wife or waxing philosophical with the white hierarchy that oppresses him -- while sometimes unwittingly empowering him at every turn -- he's a commanding presence.

Powerful supporting turns by Gabrielle Union, Armie Hammer and Jackie Earle Haley more than live up to the tone Parker sets. The narrative powers forward with a brisk economy, tracing the development of Turner's spiritual philosophy and oratory skills from boyhood to manhood.

He seizes opportunity out of exploitation, when a cadre of slave owners who fear an uprising recruit him to preach to their people. While initially playing into the power brokers' hands by twisting biblical words into rationalization of slavery and submission, a horrific event Parker witnesses acts as the match in the tinder box that convinces Turner to eschew the safe path and rile up his oppressed followers to break their chains and rise up in the face of oppression. 

The thrilling climax is well-earned by the groundwork laid in place by the airtight film, which stares down the harsh realities of living conditions, sexual humiliation and corporal punishment that were understated realities of the era. The genius of defiant forces such as Turner was the ability to find strength amid the horror, steeling themselves to stand up to the horrors surrounding them rather than be beaten down.

An inspired passion project by Parker, it's undeniable that its message would reach farther and wield more unfettered power if unhindered by the accusations that continue to hang over the head of its driving force.    

RATING: 3.5 stars out of 4.

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